The Making of Will Scarlet
by John Bainbridge
Anyone who got into the whole Robin Hood scene after the broadcasting of the television series “Robin of Sherwood” in the 1980s has an immediate image of Will Scarlet as someone who is bolshie, questioning, rebellious – even against Robin Hood when he has a disagreement over tactics – and one hell of a fighter. Often not a very merry man at all. Such is the impression made by Ray Winstone in the part in that series and the scriptwriting of Richard Carpenter. More on Mr Winstone anon.
But Will Scarlet wasn’t always represented in that way. In earlier versions, notably many of the films and the Richard Greene television version in the 1950s, Will is a much milder character. Usually portrayed as a kind of third in command, after Robin himself and Little John. And in some of the earlier versions, our Will is a bit of a dandy, a trifle flash, a gentleman amongst the outlaws. In one portrayal, I forget quite which, he even wears red tights to match his name! Enough said!
Now let’s go back a long way in the history of the legend. Unlike some of the later arrivals, such as Marian, Will Scarlet was right there at the beginning. In the earliest ballad “The Gest of Robin Hood”, Will is there, helping Robin capture Sir Richard at the Lea. In various versions of the tradition, Will has quite a variety of names. Will Scarlock, Scatlock, Scathelock, Scadlock, and several others. To complicate matters Anthony Munday in the 1590s, wrote a play in which there were two brothers, a Scarlet and a Scathelocke. It can all get very confusing!
And to add to the confusion, Robin Hood has another Will in his band, one Stutely. In some versions they get mixed up. When I was writing my Robin Hood novel “Loxley”, I made the two Wills relations by marriage. Having two characters with the same moniker is a pain for all writers. Normally you would never do it. I felt though that Stutely deserved his place in the saga.
There is also the ballad tradition that Will is somehow related to Robin Hood. In the ballad “Robin Hood and Will Scarlet”, Robin encounters young Will hunting deer in the forest. They have an archery contest and a fight (which Will wins really) before Robin invites him to join the band. His name is given as Will Gamwell, though he is wearing scarlet stockings which gives him the nickname. It is revealed in this ballad that Will is Robin’s nephew, the son of the outlaw chief’s sister. This idea of Scarlet as a relative continued in the Kevin Costner film “Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves” where a very rebellious young Will (played by Christian Slater) is revealed as Robin’s half-brother.
In the Richard Greene TV series, Will Scarlet was played by Ronald Howard and, subsequently, Paul Eddington. Useful sidekicks, but not much rebellion about them as far as I recall.
In the 1938 film “Robin Hood” starring Errol Flynn, Scarlet was played by the English actor Patric Knowles, as very much an obedient follower (David Niven was originally cast in the role but was away and couldn’t do it – it would be fascinating to know how he would have played it). A word too about Owen Teale who was Scarlet to Patrick Bergin’s Robin Hood in the film of the same name of 1991. Teale’s Scarlet is played as Robin’s aide and best friend in all the world. The two have a fine old time seeing off the Normans and, in some ways, the outlaws in Sherwood Forest. Terrific stuff and vastly entertaining. A shame, I feel, that this version was overshadowed by the Costner version.
And so back to Mr Winstone.
Tough, uncompromising, Winstone’s London accent, making him seem even more the outsider from the rest of the merries. The character’s wife murdered by the Normans. Scathlock, but Scarlet inside. Out for vengeance, seeking the blood of his enemies with little compromise. Red (Scarlet) with anger. We subsequently find out that he is a former soldier who has fought in the wars in Normandy. He’s a bruiser too, handy with his fists. You can believe that this Scarlet would really have survived in those troublous times. This Will Scarlet is a barely restrained killer.
He is shown in the first episode to be a better swordsman than Robin. Always seemingly on the edge of boiling over with his overwhelming hatred of his enemies. But though he may frequently be critical of Robin’s leadership, though he may have thoughts of replacing the leader, he shows – often at critical and emotional moments, a very moving loyalty, with a reined-in sense of humour. Winstone gives quite a performance.
And so I come to my own Will Scarlet in my novel “Loxley”. I adopted the tradition that he comes from Derby, which is suggested somewhere in one of the ballads. And, yes, I have given him the rebellious edge of the later Scarlets of film and television. He is the nominal leader of my outlaws until Robin arrives on the scene. He is destined to play a much greater part in the second novel which, will, hopefully be out at Christmas. My Scarlet is a brawler, someone with a cutting tongue too. I’ve made him with someone with an eye for the ladies. More of that in the next three books. There are whole sides to his character yet to be revealed.